Osamu Dazai is, at least in my opinion, one of the greatest writers Japan has ever known. As a fan that has read most of his novels and short stories, the chance of seeing Dazai’s life visualized in a movie is an enticing prospect. While there have been cinematographical adaptations of Dazai’s work, e.g. Human Lost (2019), Mika Ninagawa’s No Longer Human is one of the first true biopic about this troubled genius.
While the narrative opens with framing Dazai’s attempted suicide with the 19-year-old bar hostess Shimeko Tanabe, the narrative of No Longer Human is set between 1946 and 1948. Ninagawa’s narrative, in fact, starts off at the very moment he receives a love letter from Shizuko Ota (Erika Sawajiri), a female fan. Dazai takes the opportunity and begins an affair with her. After publishing The Setting Sun (1947), heavily inspired by her diaries, Dazai is suddenly bombarded as one of the greatest novelists of Japan. And then, one day, Dazai’s new lover Tomie Yamazaki (Fumi Nikaido) hears that Dazai has fathered a child with Shizuko.
In No Longer Human Osamu Dazai is first and foremost revealed as a person consciously creating the dramatic stage for his life, a dramatic stage that, once established, forms the prime source of inspiration for his writing. One could even argue that Dazai tries to create something akin to fiction in real life as to be able, with his keen eye of observation, to record it in his novels. But, despite setting the stage for this drama, Dazai is, ultimately, still forced to follow the woman, i.e. Shizuko Ota, he involved in his dramatic play. In order words, his desire to manipulate also leads him, in a certain way, to be manipulated by the other as well. But Dazai’s conscious manipulation of others is, as is made evident, in function of his art, to be able to write. In other words, he puts his writing above all else, most notably the subjectivity of others. The most evident victim of this search for inspiration is, of course, his faithful wife Michiko Tsushima (Rie Miyazawa).
Dazai’s manipulative play, of course, puts the truthfulness of his romantic feelings as well as his desire to commit suicide into doubt. The truthfulness of his feelings of love is furthermore put into doubt by what we would call his romantic opportunism. Dazai is shown as someone who does not hesitate to take advantage of the female other for his own pleasure. This opportunism, as the opening of No Longer Human clearly implies, is also in play in his suicidality. One could contend that the ultimate form of Dazai’s indulgence in sexual and erotic pleasure is ultimately nothing other than the act of committing romantic suicidality between him and his lover. Yet, Dazai, driven by this search for pleasure, a pleasure ultimately found in the romantic act of a lover’s suicide, has no true desire to die – and, this has to be said, no true desire to live either (Narra-note 1).
But Dazai’s affair with Tomie is different than his affair with Shizuko. Can we not say that Tomie, obsessionally in love with Dazai, has him completely in her grasp? Dazai’s believe in the romantic ideal of double suicide gives Tomie Yamazaki a way – playfully threatening with committing suicide alone – to manipulate Dazai into staying faithfully besides her. Their affair is, in other words, marked by a destructive dynamic. No Longer Human succeeds in visualizing this destructive dynamic and Tomie’s obsessional and manipulative love in a very captivating way. It would not be incorrect to state that the reason why the narrative ends up being so enjoyable is due to the splendid framing of this dynamic.
While we get a sense of Dazai’s decadent lifestyle – a decadence most sensibly emphasized by his romantic opportunism, the narrative does not really explore the troubled nature of Osamu Dazai. On the contrary, in a certain drinking-sequence, the troubled nature of Dazai is even subtly downplayed. While one could and rightfully so contend that the Dazai as represented in his novels was different than the man he was as writer, minimizing his chronic depressive state and the addictive as well as the curative sides of his drug and alcohol use is nothing but a subtle form of disrespect (Narra-note 2). No Longer Human, while adhering to the beats of his life’s story and offering a more psychological explorative second half, does not entirely succeed in offering a faithful interpretation (not representation) of Dazai as subject (Narra-note 3).
The composition of No Longer Human is marked by a balanced cinematographical dynamism and a visual flair. While the dynamism is strictly function of Ninagawa’s pleasing using of camera-movement and moments of fixity, the flair by which the narrative is framed is, besides profiting by this dynamism, function of the exquisite colour and lightning design. Granted, the colour-design of No Longer Human is less extravagant than in Mika Ninagawa’s other narratives, but her careful application of colour is evident. It is partially due to the colour-design that the decadence of Dazai’s lifestyle, a decadence also, at times, reverberated by the musical accompaniment, is underlined.
Another aspect that heightens the visual pleasure of Ninagawa’s narrative concerns the (often subtle) compositional use of geometry. While this compositional aspect is most evident in framing interiors, for instance using a door as a frame within a frame, there are various instances where the composition of exteriors-shots reveals a similar pleasing use of geometry.
Of all the performances in No Longer Human, Fumi Nikaido’s performance stands out. With her emotionality, she truly succeeds in bringing Tomie’s obsessional and manipulative love for Dazai sensibly to the fore. Even though Nikaido steals the show, the highlight of the narrative is, in our opinion, the tensive scene between Osamu Dazai and Yukio Mishima (Kenga Kora).
No Longer Human is, when all is said and done, a great narrative. While Ninagawa’s narrative does not succeed in bringing the troubled mind of Dazai as sensibly to the fore as needed, her representation of the final years of Dazai’s life is still an enjoyable experience. This is not only due to Ninagawa’s visually pleasing composition, but also due to Fumi Nikaido’s performance, a performance that breaths life into the destructive dynamic between Tomie and her Dazai.
Narra-note 1: This is, once again, underlined by the narrative’s end. It has, in fact, been contested that Dazai willingly committed suicide with Tomie. Some even go as far as saying that Tomie murdered Dazai.
Narra-note 2: His struggle with tuberculosis is, for that matter, sufficiently explored in the narrative, especially in the latter part of the narrative.
Narra-note 3: We use the signifier faithfully reluctantly because any biopic, by being a narrativization or fictionalization, is an interpretation. The attempt to represent or touch upon the truth of the subject will, irrespective of whatever interpretation on offer, end in failure.